Manchester United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson shakes hands with club mascot Fred the Red as he walks to his seat before their English Premier League match against Newcastle United at Old Trafford in Manchester, northern England on December 26.
LONDON: Manchester United will look to put even more daylight between themselves and Manchester City when they host West Bromwich Albion today, as the Premier League’s busy festive season continues.
Speaking prior to the Christmas period, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had set his players the modest target of being top of the standings on New Year’s Day, but his side are already disappearing towards the horizon.
Wednesday’s thrilling 4-3 win at home to Newcastle United left the 19-time champions seven points clear, and with second-place City facing a difficult trip to Norwich City, United could stretch their advantage by disposing of West Brom.
Javier Hernandez’s last-minute winner against Newcastle left Ferguson beaming, and he will have more room to manoeuvre with his squad after injury and illness robbed him of key players against Newcastle.
Wayne Rooney sat out the game after sustaining knee ligament damage in training that will keep him out for up to three weeks, but Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidic could all return.
“Ashley Young also got injured on Tuesday and Phil Jones got injured (in the 1-1 draw) against Swansea,” said Ferguson.
“They should both be OK for Saturday (today), and I will also have Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher, who are fresh.
“We couldn’t risk Vida (against Newcastle) after playing his first game (at Swansea). He had a bit of soreness in his knee, which is only to be expected after being out for so long.”
Manchester City’s title defence was dealt a potentially decisive blow in a 1-0 loss at Sunderland on Wednesday, and today’s opponents, Norwich, have been beaten at home just twice all season.
The champions’ odds of retaining their crown are lengthening by the week, but manager Roberto Mancini says he is not fazed by his side’s seven-point deficit.
“It hasn’t changed. At this moment, United are better than us, they are at the top, but we have time to recover,” said the Italian.
“We need to resolve our problems before and after, maybe we can win. It’s no problem, seven points.
“That’s not important. We know United are a fantastic team and probably they will win every game, but the season is long and it is not important if it is six or seven or four points.”
City’s setback enabled Chelsea to close to within four points of second place by winning 1-0 at Norwich and Rafael Benitez’s side -- 8-0 victors over Aston Villa in their previous game -- also have a game in hand.
Tomorrow, last season’s Champions League winners visit fifth-place Everton -- one of three teams in the table on 33 points, along with Tottenham Hotspur and West Brom.
Arsenal lost ground in the battle for a top-four finish, and Champions League qualification, after their Wednesday game with West Ham United was cancelled due to a strike on the London Underground transport network.
The Gunners have therefore benefited from an unexpected period of rest at a time when their rivals’ resources have been stretched, but midfielder Jack Wilshere says his team-mates will have to switch on quickly when they return to action at home to Newcastle today.
“It’s a tough game against Newcastle,” he said.
“They need the points, they’re not in a good run of form and they’ll want to prove something, but we want to keep this momentum going.”
Queens Park Rangers, who returned to the foot of the table after losing at home to West Brom, host Liverpool tomorrow, while second-bottom Reading tackle West Ham today and Wigan Athletic clash with Aston Villa. AFP